July is UV Safety Month … and for good reason.
Protection from ultraviolet (UV) radiation is important all year round. However, exposure to UV rays from sunlight is the greatest during the summer months.
This is because you’re spending more time outside. You’re near or in the water. And you’re wearing less and/or lighter clothing than in the colder months. So your skin is more exposed to potentially damaging rays.
The sun’s UV rays can damage your skin in as little as 15 minutes. UV rays from the sun can reach you on cloudy and hazy days, as well as bright and sunny days, because clouds block visible light, not UV. Many people don’t realize they are getting too much sun when it is overcast or if there is a light wind.
The hours between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. are the most hazardous for UV exposure outdoors. UV rays reflect off of surfaces like water, cement, sand and snow. So days spent at the beach or near a pool, are crucial times to apply and reapply sunscreen and take protective measures, such as wearing a wide-brimmed hat.
Suntanners beware. It doesn’t matter that you have that envious olive color skin. You are still damaging your skin. We hear it all the time: “I don’t burn; I tan. So I don’t have to worry.” Wrong!
When your skin is exposed to UV rays, your body makes melanin to try to protect the deeper layers of your skin from damage. Melanin is what gives your skin color. Some people produce more melanin, so their skin is naturally darker.
When your skin is damaged by the sun’s rays, your body’s defense mechanism is to make more melanin to shield your skin cells from additional damage. The melanin absorbs ultraviolet light and causes the skin to change color. Those who produce more melanin will typically tan. Those who are fair-skinned do not produce as much melanin, so instead of tanning, they just burn. But even those who tan can get a sunburn if they spend a lot of time out in the sun.
The result is still that the UV rays are actually damaging the DNA of your skin cells. Once this happens, those cells die and the body’s reaction to this is to begin flooding the area with blood to help with the healing process. And as you can guess, that is what causes the bright red glow of a sunburn.
So no matter which camp you fall in, you should always wear sunscreen before going outside. Here are some additional recommendations to help protect yourself and your family.
- Stay in the shade, especially during midday hours.
- Wear clothing that covers your arms and legs.
- Wear a hat with a wide brim to shade your face, head, ears and neck.
- Wear sunglasses that block both UVA and UVB rays.
- Use sunscreen with sun protection factor (SPF) 15 or higher, and both UVA and UVB protection.
You can reduce your risk of skin damage and skin cancer by seeking shade under an umbrella, tree, or other shelter before you need relief from the sun. Your best bet to protect your skin is to use sunscreen or wear protective clothing when you’re outside—even if you’re in the shade.
Clothes made from tightly woven fabric offer the best protection. A wet T-shirt offers much less UV protection than a dry one, and darker colors may offer more protection than lighter colors. Some clothing certified under international standards comes with information on its UV protection factor.
If wearing this type of clothing isn’t practical, at least try to wear a T-shirt or a beach cover-up. Keep in mind that a typical T-shirt has an SPF rating lower than 15, so use other types of protection as well.
For the most protection, wear a hat with a brim all the way around that shades your face, ears and the back of your neck. A tightly woven fabric, such as canvas, works best to protect your skin from UV rays. Avoid straw hats with holes that let sunlight through. A darker hat may offer more UV protection.
If you wear a baseball cap, you should also protect your ears and the back of your neck by wearing clothing that covers those areas, using sunscreen with at least SPF 15, or by staying in the shade.
Sunglasses protect your eyes from UV rays and reduce the risk of cataracts. They also protect the tender skin around your eyes from sun exposure. Sunglasses that block both UVA and UVB rays offer the best protection. Most sunglasses sold in the U.S., regardless of cost, meet this standard.
Put on broad spectrum sunscreen with at least SPF 15 before you go outside, even on slightly cloudy or cool days. Don’t forget to put a thick layer on all parts of exposed skin. Be careful not to forget ears, tops of feet, behind your knees, and other spots that might be exposed. Get help for hard-to-reach places like your back. And remember, sunscreen works best when combined with other options to prevent UV damage.
How sunscreen works. Most sun protection products work by absorbing, reflecting, or scattering sunlight. They contain chemicals that interact with the skin to protect it from UV rays. All products do not have the same ingredients; if your skin reacts badly to one product, try another one or call a doctor.
SPF. Sunscreens are assigned a sun protection factor (SPF) number that rates their effectiveness in blocking UV rays. Higher numbers indicate more protection. You should use a broad spectrum sunscreen with at least SPF 15.
Reapplication. Sunscreen wears off. Put it on again if you stay out in the sun for more than two hours and after swimming, sweating or toweling off.
Expiration date. Check the sunscreen’s expiration date. Sunscreen without an expiration date has a shelf life of no more than three years, but its shelf life is shorter if it has been exposed to high temperatures.
Cosmetics. Some makeup and lip balms contain some of the same chemicals used in sunscreens. If they do not have at least SPF 15, don’t use them by themselves.
Sources: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, American Academy of Dermatology
Sunscreen: The Burning Facts
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
FDA Sheds Light on Sunscreens
U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)
Protecting Yourself from Sun Exposure
National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH)